Peter Elwyn Phillips
One month after the earthquake in Kobe I have electricity, telephone, gas and water again the life edges towards normal but not for the 250,000 people in the schools of Kobe. I can collect my thoughts as the media images move to other disasters in other places.
One month or ten years from now I will remember the black morning of 17th of January. On top floor of a seven storey apartment buildings in Port Island I was woken in the freezing cold. The noise was deafening and the whole building was being shaken violently. I did not understand why I could not keep still. I was in total darkness. All the lights of Kobe went out.
After the shaking had stopped I slowly stood up to see what remained of my small flat fully expecting the floor to swallow me up. Shadows hanging down from the ceiling looked like the collapsed roof. In the kitchen the sharp broken edges on the floor touched my ban feet. I retreated to the bedroom to find shoes and a warm coat. I felt the flat picking my way through the unseen mess on the floor down the emergency stairs to the car in the car park.
Neighbors in bulky coats walked passed the car carrying torches. There was no structural damage to the flat apparent in the light of dawn but all the services were cut. The still phone rang. It was a friend in London who had seen Satellite TV report if the quake and wanted to know if I was alright. He knew before the Prime Minister not woken before 7:30, for fear of disturbing his sleep!
I decided to walk to my office and Kobe City was like a bad dream of escape from bombed city. Traffic was chaotic and hundreds of people on foot and bicycle picked their way through the cracks in the debris strewn roads. Many familiar landmarks were lying in rubble, charred by fire or leaning over at strange angle. Most of the offices of my employer were totally destroyed.
The consequence of the quake will be far reaching.
The “big quake” was expected in Tokyo and the Central Government, which was generally felt by all to be ineffective in this crisis, now has the chance to make realistic and workable disaster plan.
The Local Government disaster plan was based on wildly optimistic assumptions that Kobe would never be subject to a quake of more than 5 on the Richter scale, that there would be uninterrupted use of al the roads, railways and public telephones actual intensity of the quake was thirty times more damaging, almost all the key staff could not get to their posts, transportation was severed and communications interrupted.
The Japanese people are shocked at the vulnerability of their modern infrastructure and the Japanese engineer who said of the similar quake in California, exactly one year to the day before, that such damage was impossible in Japan because the latest design and countermeasures had been incorporated had to eat his words.
The lasting impression for most will be the stoicism of the people who waited in lines for hours for water and food with no civil unrest, no crime and no riots in the complete absence of civil or military authorities. The CNN crews asked me where the Japanese National Guards was! People and organizations just “volunteered” and helped each other. In the first few hours they brought mineral water and food from miles away. There was complete racial harmony with homeless Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese giving and receiving help from their neighbors with complete humanity.
Kobe City will rebuild in time and be as beautiful as it was before with its parks and blend of old houses and modern architecture. People with uncleared mortgage debt and without insurance will rebuild their houses and small business slowly. Many will be forced into public housing. They will be a high cost of meeting modern and now even more stringent codes.
Personally it was a traumatic experience that I was lucky to survive. There is a fragile thread that keeps our modern “civilization” from life like the middle ages. There are now too many of us to survive if the thread is broken in our overpopulated world. I wonder how any other nation would have coped with such wide spread breakdown of services?